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The Commoditization of Higher Education in the United Kingdom

Commoditization of Higher Education in the United Kingdom
A recent change in the government-subsidized tuition structure in the United Kingdom has made clear to higher education institutions that price is a significant factor for students looking to enroll in a postsecondary program.

In the following interview, Cathy Schofield, a lecturer at Truro and Penwith College, discusses the impact the commoditization of higher education has had on the higher education system in the United Kingdom, and how institutions are adapting to the changing marketplace and increasing competition in the industry. Schofield discusses how the recent change to the British tuition subsidy model has impacted student demand for higher education, and how institutions are adapting to the competitive marketplace.

1. How do institutions differentiate themselves in the UK’s higher education marketplace?

Since the increase in fees in UK higher education, there has been a change in universities’ approach to marketing. Traditional universities have reduced their primary focus on international reputation in favor of a more student-centered approach, such as the academic atmosphere and postgraduate opportunities. This is much more in line with the way the way universities were presenting their institutions after the Further and Higher Education Act was passed in 1992, where the major shift in marketing was to reduce their emphasis on social aspects of student life.

The colleges offering higher education shifted their marketing away from the aspirational to a more grounded focus on finance and local business links. The changes between the 2012 and 2013 marketing reflect a more serious outlook on student debt and prospects.

2. What are the majority of students in the UK looking for when they enroll in higher education? Have these preferences changed in the past 10 years?

Those from the lower socioeconomic background are more likely to see expenditure on university as a debt rather than an investment, according to Callender and Jackson, a perception that may be exacerbated by the recent escalation in fees at UK universities, which have subsequently seen a 10-percent drop in English applicants (UCAS, 2013).

Which? University, a private service that helps students find institutions well-suited to their needs, recently surveyed prospective students and found course content was the most important factor in program choice. Further, for undergraduates, distance from home was as important a factor as the institution’s reputation, suggesting financial factors are playing a more vital role in students’ decision making. This is further supported by the fact that 35 percent of respondents wanted more information regarding the employment prospects of graduating students (Burrell, 2013).

3. How significantly do the quality of education and the student experience differ between high-priced and low-priced institutions?

Since the increase in fees, lower-tariff institutions have seen a reversal in their previous 10-percent year-on-year increase to the current 10-percent drop (UCAS, 2012). Although it may be that the high-priced universities are at the top of the league tables in terms of quality, it is important to consider what is being assessed and whether this measure meets educational needs of all students.

For example, the inclusion of measures of research assessment does not necessarily correlate with quality of education as perceived by the students. Detail, which is lost within the data, is the partnerships some universities may have with colleges who offer higher education courses. These students tend to learn in smaller groups and their institution links them into their local economies, for a lower fee than would otherwise be charged (Sharp, 2012).

4. How are local institutions changing the way they approach the higher education marketplace as MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) branded by elite institutions and online programs are becoming more prevalent?

Colleges offering higher education are emphasizing their links to the local economy within their marketing, but this is not a new strategy; colleges have very much focused on attracting students from the region, rather than further afield, as part of the widening participation agenda (HEFCE, 2012). The same trend is not apparent in university marketing, whose vision is national and international in scope (Schofield et al., 2013).

The advent of MOOCs does not seem to be threatening local institutions as Burrell (2013) reported only five percent of students showed an interest in flexible learning, and many colleges offer courses — including blended learning options — for students who reside in more rural locations.

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Alan Burrell, “How students use data to choose a university,” University World News Issue 265, March 2013, available from University World News at

Alison Brunt, “Widening participation and non-continuation indicators for further education colleges: Overview of trends,” August 2012, available from the HEFCE at

Claire Callender and Jonathan Jackson, “Does the Fear of Debt Constrain Choice of University and Subject of Study?” Studies in Higher Education Vol. 33 (3) 2008.

Cathy Schofield, Debby Cotton, Karen Gresty, Pauline Kneale and Jennie Winter, “Higher education provision in a crowded marketplace,” Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, Vol 35 (2), May 2013 193-205.

Gill Sharp, “Further education college versus university: how do degree studies differ?” Which? University, August 14, 2012. Accessible from Which? University at

UCAS, End of Cycle Report 2012, December 13, 2012, available from the Cheltenham: UCAS Communications and Public Affairs at

UCAS, 2013 Cycle Applicant Figures, May 31, 2013, available from the Cheltenham: UCAS Communications and Public Affairs at


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